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Feature


A pet chameleon undergoing an identity crisis (Johnny Depp) is thrown into the Nevada desert when his aquarium is thrown from a moving car along the highway. After a brief interaction with a road kill armadillo, a battle with a hawk, and a thirst-driven nightmare, he meets a desert iguana named Beans (Isla Fisher), who brings him to her hometown of Dirt. Once in the town the neurotic chameleon realizes he can redefine himself in this new environment, and renames himself ‘Rango’. When his new tough guy persona is tested, Rango accidentally defeats the evil hawk he battled earlier, and is rewarded a sheriff’s badge by the town’s mayor (Ned Beatty). Rango takes his new job seriously, and quickly takes to solving Dirt’s disturbing lack of water, which leads him to a web of deception and corruption he wasn’t expecting to find.

 Rango
Director Gore Verbinski is a filmmaker I want to like more than I actually do. Once a director of ‘90s punk rock music videos, and Budwiser ads featuring frogs, Verbinski has been described as Terry Gilliam with commercial sensibilities (I can’t recall who to credit this to unfortunately). His intricate, baroque styles owe a bit to decorative horror maestros of days past like James Whale and Mario Bava, while his quirky camera work recalls Barry Sonnenfeld and Tim Burton. Everything about this CV implies that he should be a personal favourite, yet I’ve found most of his films empty and boring. His Pirates of the Caribbean sequels unfortunately (possibly unfairly) overshadow the rest of his career with their insipid (though occasionally, admittedly inspired) excesses, and I will admit that The Ring is the only one of the seemingly unstoppable number of Hollywood J-Horror remakes to best its predecessor, but in many ways his feature debut, Mouse Hunt, is still his most successful work. Mouse Hunt sets out to do one thing – rip off the Home Alone model with a mouse in place of a child – and it does it with breathtaking efficiency. Mouse Hunt is also a sort of live action cartoon, as are large swaths of the Pirates of the Caribbean films and The Mexican, so Verbinski’s final shift over to official, 100% animated features seems not only logical, but entirely welcome.

Verbinski’s strengths for action choreography, camera movement and decorative compositions are all rounded up into a script that delves headfirst into utter weirdness. Rango wanders through a surrealist land marked by baroque, hyperrealist details, and cartoonish tonal practices. There are big, silly action sequences (á la Pirates of the Caribbean), abstract dream visions, still comedic moments, and metatextual fourth wall breaking. This push and pull of stylistic tenor, and the dependence on set-pieces leads to a fractured film experience, but this fragmentation leads to a sense of novelty that is more important. At its most charmingly bizarre, Rango is actually reasonably close to what I’d expect from Terry Gilliam if he was given the chance to work with a sizable computer animation budget. There’s even a direct and unmistakable reference to one of Gilliam’s films (I won’t ruin the gag, but rest assured it comes very early in the film). Technically speaking Verbinski’s most inspired directorial choice is to treat the virtual camera very much like a real one, without ever losing his patented sense of kinetics. There are very few impossibly convoluted camera set-ups, even during the action sequences, and lens techniques aren’t overlooked. According to the special features on this disc there was a big effort put into virtual camera equipment, and cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins was actually brought in for technical assistance, which is pretty neat.

 Rango
What isn’t necessarily expected from Verbinski, but just as welcome, is the film’s esoteric sense of storytelling. At its most distilled Rango unfolds like a thesis on existentialism, and the ‘reality’ of acting. Rango (who is a chameleon for a reason) is looking for identity more than he’s looking for adventure, or even friendship (Verbinski mentions Joseph Campbell on the commentary track, but his influence is really only present in a literal sense). Beyond these more obtuse elements, the basic story (which is similar to the Seven Samurai inspired tale one covered in A Bug’s Life) takes some really unexpected turns, despite the familiar setting, and relative comfort usually afforded by anthropomorphic, talking animals. Adult viewers will likely know where this narrative will end its journey, but the trip is actually quite effectively told, with an original flair, and genuinely funny oddball dialogue (it’s common for characters to confuse similar sounding words like ‘anagram’ and ‘mammogram’). The story doesn’t move in a particularly efficient manner, which I could imagine will drive some children to boredom, and the quirky characters do blend into each other, but the fact that the production is willing to take chances with an art as mainstream as big-budget animation is enough to outweigh the minor shortcomings.

I am emphatically sick of our modern era’s Johnny Depp saturation, and long for an era when he was that quirky guy that disappeared into alternative little roles (in fairness, though he does basically play an animated version of the character he’s been milking for nearly a decade, Depp is quite charming here). I’m also feeling generally negative towards all things Pirates of the Caribbean lately. But damn if I can’t resist a movie that brings together two of my favourite things in entertainment – Looney Tunes cartoons and spaghetti westerns. You could argue that Rango is simply an homage to the western genre in general, but those of us obsessed with European-specific westerns from the ‘60s and ‘70s can still dig up plenty of spaghetti specific clues. Besides the Django (by way of Seven Samurai and Chinatown) plot themes, which covers the oft-covered theme of the death of the ‘wild west’, Hans Zimmer’s Ennio Morricone-worshiping score, and the use of widescreen photography, there are a few more subtle visual clues. For example, one of the generic thugs is made to look like Klaus Kinski in For a Few Dollars More, Rango dawns a Man with No Name poncho for the climax, and Rattlesnake Jake is a sort of anthropomorphic snake amalgamation of Lee Van Cleef and Jack Palance. The biggest clue, which is more of a smack to the forehead than a clue, is the physical embodiment of the ‘Spirit of the West’, which looks exactly like an elderly Clint Eastwood dressed in his The Good, the Bad and the Ugly garb. Oh, and the name Rango is only two letters away from Django, and one letter away from Ringo, two of the most common title characters in spaghetti western history.

 Rango
Rango marks Industrial Light and Magic’s first fully animated feature film, and they make a pretty good freshman go. The studio has been dealing in animated characters for decades now, so their success isn’t a total surprise. Much of the animation’s success rests with the creative character designs, which forgo the usual cartooning techniques of rounding or fattening most of their characters up (similar to the ‘Chibi’ or ‘Super-Deformed’ terms attached to Anime). Many of the characters are defined by their skinniness, and the chubbier characters are often more grotesque than cute. There’s an obsessive quality to the endearing ugliness these humanized critters embody, from their boils and conjunctivitis, to the fact that almost none of them are symmetrical (curiously, this was the result of four different designers working together). It’s likely these particular animators, having worked overtime for years to disguise their animation efforts as natural wanted to tear loose with extreme exaggeration, but I found the overall effect to be relatively subtle. Of course the characters overact, but the walk a fine line between realism and Chuck Jones hyperbole. I’m not willing to mark Rango as my favourite animated film of 2011 just yet, but I find it hard to believe that I’ll enjoy any other similar piece on a level of pure technical animation.

Video


I’m reasonably sure no one was assuming anything but the best from this straight from digital source 1080p Blu-ray transfer, so I’m just here to verify all of our expectations. The biggest success story is the incredible detail levels. The textures are generally realer than real, enough that I nearly succumbed to the desire to touch the screen on several occasions. The daylight look is mostly brown and dusty, with emphasis on warmer hues, while the night sequences are generally greenish. There are some exceptions, of course, and these scenes stand apart appropriately. The big departures are the blown-out, high contrast ‘dream world’, the more vibrant ‘human’ world (the film starts with Rango in a terrarium that mockingly looks like every other CG animated film you’ve ever seen), and the brief appearance of a burning sundown. The character designs are also cleverly set similarly, which helps the flash of green that is Rango stand apart even in busy wide shots. Details on the included DVD copy are somewhat lost as a result of the similarities found in the warm, dusty hues, but here the delicate differentiations are captured without incident. If I look too closely I do notice a hint of edge haloing, and some slightly bleedy hues, but given the clarity of the bulk of the transfer I’m pretty sure no one will really get too far down negative-nelly road, especially considering how much stuff is on screen at any given time.

 Rango

Audio


This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack doesn’t stand too far apart from similar animated features, but there is a crispness to the sound effects, and a rounded quality to the music that makes this something close to special. There are plenty of big, aggressive action moments, but most of these are played for laughs, and are defined more by the soundtrack’s musical influences than rumbling rubble or flying glass. Sound is appropriately heightened, from reality based clanks and rattles, to more stereotypically cartoonish zips and zings. The action set pieces do feature plenty of immersive effects, but the stereo and surround channels are used to the best effect for comedic effect. Any sequence involving the mole family riding their pet bats, or Rattlesnake Jake (he has many guns, and his rattle is made up of gun barrels) will definitely work your system out, sweeping throughout the channels, and giving the LFE a boisterous workout. Composer Hans Zimmer doesn’t create anything fresh or seminal for the film, but celebrates traditional western, spaghetti western and Mexican themes Rango alludes to with buoyant energy. On the track the music has all the best qualities of live rock and roll and orchestra hall symphonic music.

Extras


The rather comprehensive extras (many of which are not listed on the box art) begin with a commentary track featuring director/co-writer Gore Verbinski, head of story James Ward Byrkit, production designer Mark ‘Crash’ McCreery, animation director Hal Hickel and visual effects supervisor Tim Alexander. This is available only on the extended version of the film, and I couldn’t figure out how to turn it on from the extras menu (clearly I’m stupid). It’s a relatively low-key, occasionally even dull track (this is a group conversation, not a group speaking to an audience most of the time), but there is plenty of information concerning production. It’s clear that this was very much a group effort, and that the story and tone were really crafted by the process rather than the script. There is plenty of technical jargon, but nothing will whip too quickly even a layman’s head. Verbinski is good at pointing out thematic elements you might have missed on your first viewing (such as the continuing motif of framing Rango in boxes), but not a lot of mention of homage or inspiration. I also must have missed the bits where the commentators pointed out the extended moments.

 Rango
‘Breaking the Rules: Making Animation History’ is a two part behind the scenes featurette, which begins with ‘The Stage is Set’ (28:20, HD). This covers the development phase, including Verbinski’s story treatment (which predates the Pirates of the Caribbean films), the western archetypes that defined the look (the comparisons included are all American westerns that Paramount happens to own), the character and general art design, producing a story reel, casting an amazing collection of character actors, shooting live action reference (it appears that a lot of the vocal performance was also captured here), and planning the action scenes. ‘Now We Ride’ (20:30, HD) covers the animation process, including style, camera techniques, studying the actor’s performances. This section also covers Hans Zimmer’s musical additions, and the recording process, including the professional musicians that were involved in the process. ‘Real Creatures of Dirt’ (22:10, HD) is a reasonably informative look at the real desert creatures that inspired the filmmakers with a sort of Crocodile Hunter Jr., who tells us all about the critters while idiotically fondling them (the poor fox looks especially pissed-off), though I am assuming most of them are actually domesticated.

The disc also includes 10 deleted/extended scenes (8:30, HD), including an alternate coda/ending. From what I can recall all of these were included in the extended edition of the film, and are presented in a completed form. Things are completed with a storyboard reel PiP option on the theatrical version, ‘A Field Trip in Dirt’ interactive set/design gallery, a trailer, and trailers for other Paramount releases.

 Rango

Overall


I very much regret missing Rango in theaters. I let my apprehensions surrounding director Gore Verbinski, and my exhaustion surrounding Johnny Depp keep me away until I was forced to watch it for review purposes. It’s a little rough around the edges, and is strange enough that it won’t work for everyone, but there’s something really special here. I hope Tim Burton watched it and cried at his inability to capture similarly bizarre magic. This is also an excellent way to introduce your children to the joys of Sergio Leone films. Even if you did manage to catch the film in theaters, you’ve got some surprises in store thanks to the availability of this extended edition. The video and audio qualities are very close to absolute perfection, and the extras are full of information and entertainment. Highly recommended all around.

* Note: The below images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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